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Eric Gaskins

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Ultrasuede: In Search Of Halston Part I

Posted: 05/01/2010 7:55 pm

Last night's world premiere of the Whitney Sudler-Smith's documentary "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston" was obviously a much sought after ticket. It was a fashion happening when you consider the cast within and without. Andre Leon Talley was credited on screen with having made the film possible along with a several designers, celebrity clients and people from within Halston's inner circle. Andre Leon Talley and Ralph Rucci were the most articulate voices on screen in their efforts to define the designer Halston. It seems his greatest achievement in the end was his creation of a modern, minimalist luxury that has defined the American fashion aesthetic in a similar way that Yves Saint Laurent's maximalist luxury has defined the aesthetic of the French. Ralph, who had been an assistant creating toiles before opening his own company, describes a moment when he watched Halston cut into a bolt of silk chiffon with out a pattern. In one fell swoop, he cut out a bias dress that fit the body perfectly. His talent among many was his ability to see things in 3 dimensions. Halston was a master at creating shapes using 1 seam, patterns that were truly examples of Origami, spiral seams that made dresses and gowns "cleave" to the body in the most sensual way.

These and more stories of his creativity and rigor were shared by Ralph and Andre but also by Liza, Pat Cleveland and Cathy Horyn. Liza was the most eloquent and earthy of the group when she spoke about her friendship with the man and his constant support, attentions and loyalty. She instructed Whitney early on to really search out the story that is Halston and not get sidetracked by the gossip and lurid 70's stories of excess and debauchery, which have become legend. As unguarded and straightforward as Liza was on camera, she was strangely vague and disingenuous when asked about the wild nights of sex and drugs at Studio 54, their living room away from home. Her responses of never having witnessed anything untoward and that Halston remained always by her side was starkly contrasted to the memories of the DuPont Twins, two balding, identical, party addled 50-somethings, who'd been at the center of the party back when it was at its height. Their memories were more plausible, when you consider two heads being better than one, even if those two were so stoned they probably don't remember how they got to 2010 from then.
Whitney, the director was an unsettling presence in the film by having created for himself a persona for his job of documentarian. He was a pastiche of Gator McCluskey (a trashy Burt Reynolds character) and a corny Travolta styled Saturday Night Fever extra, jumping in and out of a cheesy Trans Am with an array of different hair colors, hair cuts and over sized aviator sunglasses and truly heinous suits of the leisure sort. This sight gag immediately skewed the tone of what should have been a serious effort to one that was coy and smirking. Andre Leon Talley, in PURE ANDRE form, set him straight on a number of occasions, to stop interrupting, that he was not there to teach him the history of fashion, to listen and learn, to tell his camera crew to behave and on one occasion complimented his research which was scant much of the time. Whitney's ignorance of Diana Vreeland was a gaffe that created an audible gasp throughout the theater...... In time, he seemed to cool his silly, "I'm just a straight guy doin' this film so I can meet some models and find out about the parties", and became more investigative. He seemed clueless that this was a truly American story playing out in the unbound 70's where the creative Gay elite ruled all things related to Style, Fashion, the Arts and to a large degree the highest levels of society. Sexual freedom and the alcohol and drug taking that fueled it were just a fact of life. Ralph laid that out succinctly and clearly in an effort to eliminate further attention on that fact versus the creative output that was so rich and life changing. I was most impressed with Ralph Rucci's guileless delivery on what this giant of a man meant to the culture of that time. Today his influence and legacy is almost a vapor that appears only when the light is at just the right angle. Like "September Issue" was supposed to be all about Anna Wintour, "Ultrasuede" was more about Ralph Rucci. Ralph Rucci is possessed of a soul and a mind that is extraordinary. He showed himself to be a realist in recounting the times and did an incredible job of explaining what drove Halston. Andre Leon Talley dovetailed with him in his ability to place Halston, the designer, in the pantheon of creators who shaped the way fashion has evolved since then and the enormous influence he's had on the way women dress.They both went a long way in crediting Elsa Peretti with collaborating with Halston to create this new vision of a modern woman. I wondered where she was in the film, though Andre said early on that she would not necessarily be available to Whitney. She wasn't. One got the distinct feeling that she didn't suffer fools or film makers who hadn't done their homework. There would be no Calvin, Zoran, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan or Ralph Rucci (and that's just on this side of the pond) and on and on had it not been for the stone path he set so carefully in place.

So much of the film focused on exactly what Liza with a Z cautioned Whitney against. At times, it might have been a made for TV film on the glory days of Studio. Some of the most amusing characters were interviewed in these moments. Christopher Makos, a great photographer then and now was disarmingly glib and direct about all things lurid. What was telling was his difficulty in staying focused on the camera. Every time the phone rang, he answered it. It was as though Halston was a chitchat subject, no longer worthy of serious thought or attention.

This same disrespect for the subject and the film crew happened again and again with others like Georgette Mosbacher, the owner of Borghese; a big, bloated southern belle, who stormed the gates of 70's NYC society. Her assistant was constantly shoving a cell phone in her face and harping on her busy schedule, a complete disregard for the camera crew there doing its job. When Borghese bought Halston, Georgette received the bulk of the archives of Halston's 30-year career, which came in about 60 boxes and countless garment bags. This consisted of mountains of technical information, patterns, sketches and boards which held whole collections sketched by Joe Eula, Halston's Illustrator extraordinaire. Contrary to what we might have thought of Mrs. Mosbacher, who lived and breathed fashion, her answer to where this trove should go was not to a Museum like the Metropolitan or some other important institution that would preserve it using the most advanced archival techniques, or even something close. She dumped it all into an unlocked closet off the side of a classroom at the Lipscomb Bible College, a hot bed of fundamentalism. That's the equivalent of sending it to the dump. That careless, callous act spoke volumes about her colossal ignorance. When more than one audience member asked questions about Halston's Legacy at the panel discussion afterward, the facts were unsettling and a statement on what the world at large and the fashion world, in particular, have become. It is akin to a gorgon that chews up and spits out all that comes within its reach. Artistry, genius and visionary women and men have so little value in this culture.

I made the statement to the panel that I was appalled at the resting place of this archive and the message it sends about this country's values and priorities. I wanted to go on and ask why there is so little attention paid to people like Geoffrey Beene and other designer's whose brilliance shifted the way designers approach a new aesthetic. I also wanted to ask Ralph Rucci how Halston conceived his collections. What were his methods? I didn't want to monopolize the microphone, so I took my seat with those questions roiling in my head.

 

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